During a Senate hearing last week, Rand Paul complained about the federal energy standards that will force conventional incandescent light bulbs off the market during the next few years. "I can't buy the old light bulbs," the Kentucky Republican said. "That restricts my choice."
The response from an Energy Department official nicely illustrated the paternalistic, know-it-all attitude Paul was criticizing. "I'm pro-choice on bulbs," insisted Kathleen Hogan, the deputy assistant secretary for energy efficiency. "My view is, what you want is lighting." And the government, in its infinite wisdom, will tell you what kind of lighting is best for you.
By this logic, the government could ban cars without meaningfully restricting consumer choice, because what you want is transportation, and you can always ride a bike or take a bus. The fact that you have implicitly rejected the tradeoffs entailed by those other options does not matter.
And so it is with light bulbs. The energy efficiency standards that have doomed the most popular varieties, set forth in a law signed by President George W. Bush in 2007, will begin to take effect in January, making conventional 100-watt bulbs illegal. By 2014, all traditional bulbs (except for a few specialized uses) will be abolished, to be replaced by more efficient alternatives, mainly compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs).
Kathleen Hogan is right: What I want is lighting, and CFLs are not very good at providing it. Unlike incandescent bulbs, CFLs do not go on when you flip a switch -- they think about going on and then, after mulling the idea for a few minutes, achieve their maximum brightness when you are done with whatever you were planning to do, which is especially annoying in the bathroom.
CFLs do not work well with dimmers, which we have throughout our house, and sometimes they emit an unbearable whine. And did I mention that they cost up to six times as much as their incandescent competitors?
CFLs "cost more than traditional incandescent bulbs," USA Today concedes, "but they last longer." Not in our house, the one we lived in before this one, or the one before that.
One reason our CFLs don't last as long as advertised may be that we turn them on and off. According to a 2009 report in The Telegraph, "The lifespan of energy-saving light bulbs can be reduced by up to 85 percent if they are switched off and on too often."
If you try to avoid this problem by leaving the lights on, you undermine the main selling point of CFLs, which is that they save electricity by producing more light for the same amount of energy. "A household that upgrades 15 inefficient incandescent light bulbs," Hogan enthuses, "could save about $50 per year."
That calculation takes into account the higher price of CFLs, but I suspect it assumes they last longer than they really do. In any event, I would gladly pay 14 cents a day for the luxury of lights that go on when I turn them on. But the government won't let me.
I am not a fuddy-duddy clinging to "the incandescent light bulb that has its origins in Thomas Alva Edison's laboratory" -- as Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, put it when he introduced a bill to repeal the bulb ban -- simply because it's familiar. I will be happy to use CFLs if and when their manufacturers get the kinks out, or LED bulbs when they become affordable. But I am not the only one who thinks we're not there yet, judging from the Energy Department's estimate that more than 80 percent of residential lights sockets were still occupied by incandescent bulbs last year.
By forcing this transition, the government is ignoring the preferences that most Americans have clearly expressed in the marketplace. Which explains why I cheered when I heard Paul declare: "You busybodies always want to do something to tell us how to live our lives better. Keep it to yourselves."